Movie Review: First Stripes
Jean-François Caissy’s fly-on-the-wall documentary isn’t about glorifying the military with a starry-eyed salute to symbols. It’s about celebrating the humans who sacrifice a part of themselves for the national ideal, but more importantly, for each other.
Directed by: Jean-François Caissy
Running time: 1 hr 46 mins
Streaming on the National Film Board app and at nfb.ca
Launching Today, April 6, 2020
By Katherine Monk
The NFB wants to give you some Canadian company on the couch, so it’s increasing its catalogue of on-line titles every week. That means you can not only watch classics from the likes of national treasures like Norman McLaren’s Oscar winning 1952 short Neighbours (still as relevant now as it was close to 70 years ago), it also means you can watch fresh titles such as First Stripes — a true example of cinema-verité, in true Canadian style.
Lacking narration, animated interludes, graphics of any kind or even a central character, First Stripes puts us inside the barracks of Recruit School in St. Jean-Sur-Richelieu where we watch a group of newbies find their feet in a whole new world. Some are strapping young men who want a change from doing security and construction, others are moms with kids, seeking to increase their skill sets.
It’s a likeable group, which makes Jean-François Caissy’s (Guidelines) fly-on-the-wall doc pretty watchable — despite the meditative pace and near lack of a soundtrack. In other words, this is not An Officer and a Gentleman. There is nothing romantic in this film, not even a distant adoration of the military itself.
There isn’t even any militaristic gun porn. For most of their training, the new recruits aren’t carrying any weapons at all. At one point, they pretend to hold rifles — which only makes the film so much more human, and so much more, um… Canadian. This isn’t about glorifying the military with a starry-eyed salute to symbols. It’s about celebrating the humans who sacrifice a part of themselves for the national ideal, but more importantly, for each other.
There isn’t even any militaristic gun porn. For most of their training, the new recruits aren’t carrying any weapons at all. At one point, they pretend to hold rifles — which only makes the film so much more human, and so much more, um… Canadian.
The movie begins with the parade march marking graduation — a beautiful display of coordination and collective strength — and then it takes us back in time. Twelve weeks earlier, this group of recruits could barely walk together, let alone march in unison. Some are awkward and introverted looking for a place, while others are outgoing and outspoken, looking for a cause.
All of them get yelled at, a lot, (in French, these are all Quebec recruits) – because the whole point of military training, as we eventually learn, isn’t to prove how great you are alone. It’s to discover how much more you can be when you work as a team — and understand the concept of uniform — and uniformity. As a result, when one of them does something wrong, they all get punished. They have to watch their entire unit suffer the same consequences for their lapse in judgment.
Survival requires a successful team effort, and that means knowing your role and how to perform it. It also demands a steady, measured denial of your own ego.
It’s a theme Caissy underscores in his static, silent shots all the way through the journey. The one that sticks with me, and where it all came together in the final stretch, is a sequence showing one of the soon-to-be-graduates folding his brown T-shirt: Carefully placing it on his bed, aligning the seams, folding each side, each sleeve, and then checking the finished dimensions against a regulation template. After finishing the last one, he adds it to two others, and checks the whole tidy stack against the guide while gliding a hand over the folded cloth like so much clay. You detect his quiet satisfaction. And share in it.
To read more of Katherine’s reviews, check out the Ex-Press archive, or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes.
THE EX-PRESS, April 7, 2020